Democracy on a Ventilator?

By Olusegun Adeniyi

(The 2024 edition of the Pastor Poju Oyemade-inspired ‘Platform Nigeria’ conversation held yesterday in Lagos with the theme, ‘Democracy and the Free Market Economy’. Speakers included Governor Chukwuma Soludo of Anambra State, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN, a former Lagos State Governor, Bishop Matthew Kukah of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Mr Kola Oyeneyin, CEO of Opportunik Global Fund, Mrs Titi Oshodi, Special Advisor on Climate Change and Circular Economy to the Lagos Governor and Mr. Oluseun Onigbinde, co-founder and Director of BudgIT. I was also a speaker. Below is the text of my presentation.)

A phrase popularized by politicians in the last 25 years is ‘democracy dividends.’ But whatever it means, it is evident that most Nigerians have not been availed their fair share. For all its human and material resources, Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) remains among the lowest in the world. Food inflation, currently above 40 percent, is not only frightening but breeds the risk of social, economic and security turbulence. So, while periodic elections are important, when most of our citizens find it difficult to put food on their table, we have a problem. In any case, a country’s democratic election is only as good as the country itself.

From the United States to Europe and Asia, the rise of Donald Trump and fellow travellers has led to a consensus that liberal democracy is under threat. But the real challenge in Nigeria and most countries across Africa, is existential as people worry about where their next meal will come from. In Abuja a few weeks ago to speak at a programme organized by the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, Afrobarometer co-founder, Prof Gyimah Boadi said that in survey after survey, people on the continent have been consistent in their pro-democratic aspirations. But he also warned that lack of accountable governance relative to citizen expectations is driving many to lose faith in democracy. “Policy actors and advocates must focus on accountable governance, in order to sustain and deepen citizens’ faith in democracy,” Boadi admonished.

In his 2022 piece, ‘Democracy on a ventilator?’ Andrew Sheng, a former chair of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission, argued that “electoral promises are meaningless if there are no deliverables in an accountable manner.” In the case of Nigeria, a democracy that can neither advance the welfare of the people nor protect them from dying cheaply and needlessly in the hands of a cocktail of violent vagrants is endangered. 

This morning, I am borrowing from my coming book on 25 issues that have defined the last 25 years of the current democratic dispensation. I started the book early last year but despite my best efforts, it’s still in the works. Hopefully, it will be ready by December. I am looking at the salient issues that have most impacted our polity since 1999: The good, the bad and the ugly. I am also exploring potential pathways for addressing some of them with a view to strengthening our democracy. One of the issues interrogated in the book is the futility of godfatherism. That should be no surprise. It is an issue I believe we need to deal with if our democracy is to deliver the public good. I have therefore titled my presentation, ‘Democracy on Ventilator: The Role of Godfather.’

Godfatherism comes in different variants. The common variant today is that by outgoing political office holders foisting on the people their handpicked successors. There are of course other variants. But there is no substantial difference between the power merchants of old who sought no office themselves and the current ones who seek to plant surrogates after their terms have ended. Stripped of all pretensions, godfatherism is the pursuit of private interest at public expense and it is not about the good of the people as we have seen over the years in our country. Effective state capacity ensures that institutions function optimally. But we cannot develop such capacity if all we have to offer is godfatherism which hinders genuine democratic representation. Meanwhile, a ventilator is a life-support machine that provides oxygen to the lungs for those who can no longer breathe on their own. During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, it was a life-or-death situation for many who were placed on a ventilator. That precisely is where we are with our democracy in Nigeria today.

It may be important to state here that godfatherism is not peculiar to Nigeria. It is a global challenge in varying degrees. The Philippines has a history of political dynasties and godfathers. Powerful families control local politics, perpetuating their influence across generations. Italian politics has also seen its fair share of godfathers, particularly in regions such as Sicily where the influence of Mafia families in elections has been well-documented. The politics of Kenya is also replete with influential figures who shape electoral outcomes. These ‘kingpins’ control party nominations and funding. The consequences, of course, include compromised governance and limited accountability.

In 2007, Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization headquartered in New York City, United States, produced an in-depth report titled, ‘Corruption, Godfatherism and the Funding of Political Violence,’ with a focus on Nigeria. “These godfathers are not mere financiers of political campaigns. Rather they are individuals whose power stems not just from wealth but from their ability to deploy violence and corruption to manipulate national, state or local political systems in support of the politicians they sponsor,” the HRW wrote. “In return, they demand a substantial degree of control over the governments they help bring into being—not to shape government policy, but to exact direct financial ‘returns’ …”

In my coming book, the chapter on godfatherism is detailed and I am exploring the different variants. We see them on full display even today. There are many examples to cite, from Port Harcourt to Kano. But this morning, I want to illustrate my point with just one variant of godfatherism from which I draw two examples: The first in Oyo State and the second in Anambra State. I have deliberately chosen this variant and the two case studies because we live in a country where collective amnesia has become a common disease. Besides, in both instances, critical institutions including the legislature and judiciary that should serve as bulwarks of democracy became willing tools in the hands of godfatherism, to the detriment of the people. The godfathers in question also publicly acknowledged their role.

Let’s start with Oyo State. In 2003, Alhaji Rasheed Ladoja of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) defeated then incumbent Governor, the late Lam Adesina who contested on the platform of the Alliance for Democracy (AD). But Ladoja relied heavily on the instrumentality of the late Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu. It didn’t take long before things fell apart between the two. Adedibu of course minced no words regarding his grouse with the former whom he claimed was “collecting N65 million as security vote every month,” without giving him (Adedibu) what he considered his fair share. “You know that governors don’t account for security vote. He (Ladoja) was to give me N15 million of that every month. He reneged. Later it was reduced to N10 million. Yet he still did not give me.”

Since Adedibu was not a politician to slight without consequence, what followed was predictable. On 12 January 2006 in Ibadan, 18 of the 32 members of the Oyo State House of Assembly sat in a hotel room and pronounced that the Governor had been impeached. This was despite a case filed in court by three members of the same House who argued, quite correctly, that the pro impeachment members did not have the requisite numbers. With federal might on their side, Ladoja’s deputy, the late Alao Akala was immediately sworn in as Oyo State Governor. It took ten months before Ladoja could regain his seat. On 1 November 2006, the Appeal Court, sitting in Ibadan and presided over by Justice J.O. Ogebe, threw out the purported impeachment. The court held that it violated Section 188 of the 1999 Constitution which contains the correct processes of impeaching a governor.

After returning to office, Ladoja provided insights on the nature of his relationship with Adedibu and the various manifestations of godfatherism: “One, he (Adedibu) asked me, ‘Do you know how to abuse people?’ I said no. Then he asked, ‘Can you take away your clothes in public and fight?’ I said no. Thirdly, he asked, ‘Can you tell lies against somebody and swear on the Qur’an and again call witnesses?’ Again, I said impossible. Then he said, ‘Those are the things we always use in politics.”

Ladoja of course refused to speak on the purported financial agreement he had with his then estranged godfather. But his Special Adviser on Security and Protocol, Chief Bola Alphonso, inadvertently corroborated Adedibu’s claim. “Let’s put the record straight, I am a living witness to the promise that a certain amount of money will be given Adedibu every month…if any arrangement had been agreed upon, I want to say it would have just been a token,” said Alphonsus. “Because I am sure local government chairmen would go there to pay their dues. There is no way Commissioners would not go to him. There is no Special Adviser who will not go to him and even, I am sure, civil servants will be going underneath to see Baba.”

Because he intrigued me, I visited the late Adedibu a couple of times at his Malete, Ibadan residence. And I wrote a few columns on him while he was still alive. Adedibu himself once provided insights on the reward of a godfather. In a 1992 interview with ‘African Concord’ magazine (now rested), Adedibu was asked about the expectation of a godfather. “Let me put it this way,” he replied, “Imagine you lead five of your boys for an assignment and you were given N50 after you had supervised them to do the work. You as the leader, if you are wise, will give each of your boys N10 at the end of which you would be left with nothing. You now tell them to give you whatever pleases them. At the very least, each would give you N2. That gives you N10 while they will each be left with N8. Meanwhile, they would still be grateful to you. That is the reward of a kingmaker”.

The implication here is that the godfather is not promoting candidates based on platforms, issues or programmes.  Concerns about the welfare of the people have nothing to do with what is clearly a mercantile arrangement. By Adedibu’s logic, the kingmaker is entitled to ‘eat’ more than the king. This arrangement is a recipe for trouble as we have seen in countless theatres across the country in the past 25 years. We witnessed that two decades ago in the Chris Ngige-Chris Uba imbroglio in Anambra State which led to massive desctrution that in turn made the late Professor Chinua Achebe reject the national honour offered him by President Olusegun Obasanjo.

The story can be traced back to 1999 when the late Dr Chinwoke Mbadinuju became the first governor of Anambra State under the new democratic dispensation. Four years later, Mbadinuju could not secure a second term ticket from the PDP following his inability to keep faith with the agreement he allegedly entered with his godfather, Chief Chris Uba. In his stead, Uba adopted Dr Chris Ngige for whom he deployed his political machine both at the PDP primaries and in the 2003 election. A few days after Ngige was sworn in, Uba boasted about his power. “It is not just the governor and his deputy that I sponsored, there are also three senators, 10 members of the House of Representatives and 30 members of the House of Assembly… I sponsored them,” Uba claimed in a newspaper interview before he added for emphasis: “This is the first time in the history of Anambra State that one single individual would be putting every public officer in the state in power.”

Less than two months in office, Ngige (a sitting governor) was abducted from the government house and moved to a hideout in a made-for-Nollywood drama of infamy that demonstrates the level of decadence in our politics. By Ngige’s account, the bone of contention “was the demand of Chris Uba for N3 billion for his alleged campaign expenses on my behalf which I turned down”. Yet, it was not as if the governor completely shunned his godfather. As Ngige explained at the time, he had already compelled the state accountant general to pay Chief Uba N960 million upfront to defray the cost of a contract awarded in 1996 during the military era. But that was apparently not enough for Uba.

On 10 July 2003 at the State House of Assembly, then Speaker, Mrs. Eucharia Azodo, read a letter purportedly written by the governor that he (Ngige) had resigned from office on personal grounds. Within minutes, the House of Assembly accepted the ‘resignation’ and directed the chief judge of the state to swear in the deputy governor, Okey Udeh as the new governor. Immediately after the House proceedings, a contingent of policemen arrived the Government House in three trucks and whisked away Governor Ngige who was later sighted at his temporary residence at Choice Hotel in Awka, the state capital.

Shortly after, Udeh addressed the state, claiming to have assumed office to avoid a vacuum “and in allegiance to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” But across Nigeria, it was evident that a sordid drama was playing out in the state. The whereabouts of the governor was yet to be ascertained when his Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Fred Chukwulobe, announced that Ngige had not resigned. He said: “The Governor, Dr. Chris Ngige, has not resigned. The letter purportedly written to the lawmakers is false and not written by him. Dr. Chris Ngige is still the executive governor of Anambra State.”

Meanwhile, at the hotel where he had been taken, something fortuitous happened to change the course of events. A traditional ruler, Igwe Anugwu of Mbaukwu, was passing by when he heard the altercations between Ngige and the security agents who held him captive. The Igwe sought to know from the governor what was going on. “I told him these people said I have resigned when I have not resigned,” Ngige said in his recollection of what transpired that day. Apparently shocked, the royal father reportedly retorted, “But we heard on the radio that you have resigned.” When Ngige narrated his story, the Igwe made a call to Second Republic Vice President, the late Dr Alex Ekwueme and handed his mobile phone to Ngige. That elicited another drama. The security agents attempted to snatch the phone from Ngige. The traditional ruler brought out a pistol. The call with Ekwueme did not yield much result. Assisted by the traditional ruler, Ngige made another call, this time to then PDP National Secretary, the late Chief Vincent Ogbulafor. Fortunately for Ngige, Ogbulafor was with other PDP National Working Committee members at the time. And they were all concerned about developments in Anambra State.

Ngige shared his harrowing experience in the hands of his godfather. Ogbulafor put his phone on speaker mode so others could join in. The interesting conversation detailed in my coming book is quite revealing of the situation in Anambra at the time. But a sampler from what Ngige told his party’s NWC members: “For the past two weeks, Chris Uba who said he wanted to appoint all 11 commissioners, special advisers, ADC, Chief Detail, Secretary to the State Government even rejected the appointment of my personal staff. He said they are not acceptable to him. I do not know why. I told him that I only appointed those we had agreed upon earlier, so, I am surprised. Last week, he redeployed a Permanent Secretary in my office without my approval.” Before the conversation ended, Ngige pleaded with Ogbulafor and the listening NWC members to “keep in touch with me; you know I am not free as I am talking with you.”

After regaining his freedom, Ngige decided to be his own man. Public opinion was on his side. In revenge, Uba weaponised the Peter Obi case at the tribunal. His supporters testified in court as to how they rigged the election. The case went as far as the Supreme Court but Obi ultimately prevailed and Ngige lost out. The rest, as they say, is history. Now, what can we learn from the foregoing?

Godfatherism may not be unique to Nigeria. It exists in various forms worldwide. But our experience in the last 25 years should serve as a cautionary tale, urging us to critically examine power dynamics in politics and seek more inclusive alternatives. As we have seen with the primaries of the major political parties, godfatherism restricts the emergence of credible candidates who can genuinely serve the public. It has also enthroned people who have no business in governance. This is why every hand must be on deck to put a stop to the politics of manipulation and imposition that godfatherism fosters.

No matter how we look at it, godfatherism stifles democratic growth. When elected officials owe their political success to godfathers, it is no surprise that they get entangled in a constant tug-of-war between serving the public interest and appeasing their benefactors. This compromises policy decisions, allocation of resources, and the appointment of key officials—all done with the implicit approval of the godfather. If our democracy is to survive and thrive, the task before the present crop of political leaders is to mobilise and collectively fight poverty, ignorance and underdevelopment. That cannot be done in a milieu where some invest in politics not to promote the public good but as a transactional enterprise for which they must reap bountifully. 

The ultimate test of the value of a political system, as Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, reminded us “is whether it helps to improve the standard of living for the majority of its people.” It is perhaps for that reason that Nigerians have embraced democracy with the belief that they would be better governed and enjoy shared prosperity. Unfortunately, it has not worked out that way. With the wave of disenchantment fueled largely by the harsh socio-economic environment that has been compounded by general insecurity, it is important for the authorities at all levels to feel the pulse of the people.

As stated earlier, my coming book is not all gloom and doom. It highlights some of the major strides of the last 25 years. But I believe we should not be in denial about some of the issues we also need to deal with to ensure our democracy survives and thrives. One of them of course is godfatherism which, according to HRW, is both a symptom and a cause of the violence and corruption that together permeate the political process in the country. That is because “Public officials who owe their position to the efforts of a political godfather incur a debt that they are expected to repay without end throughout their tenure in office.”

Godfatherism is distorting our democracy. It limits the choice of the electorate to favoured candidates, allowing some to use the resources of the state to sponsor surrogates and advance the preference and interest of the incumbent over and above those of the majority. To change the narrative, political parties have a role to play. Their leadership selection processes must be freer, fairer and less transactional.

I am aware that the central theme of today’s conversation is the relationship between democracy and free market economy. But this is a complex issue. Human flourishing, according to David C. Rose, a Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, United States, requires the prosperity that comes from a free-market system which depends upon democratic institutions. But he also pointed out the dilemma. “The democratic system facilitates redistributive and regulatory favouritism that undermines trust in the system,” Rose argued. “This, in turn, weakens many trust-dependent institutions upon which the free-market system and democracy depend.” Since I don’t have the competence to interrogate why that is the case or how we can navigate such complexity in Nigeria, I leave it for experts like Professor Chukwuma Soludo who are also here today and can help us in that regard. Besides, we live in a country where people mouth free market yet still demand subsidy on petroleum, education, electricity, forex and for pilgrimage. But as I said, I leave the Anambra State Governor and others to deal with those contradictions.

Let me now conclude with this story about a traveler who visited a Greek monastery perched high on a steep mountain. The only way to reach the monastery was in a rope basket. With a sense of adventure, the traveler climbed into the basket, but just as he was about to be taken up the steep cliff wall, he noticed that the rope lifting the basket was frayed. He asked the monk. “How often do you replace the rope?” Apparently taken aback by the question, the monk responded: “Every time it breaks”.

Unfortunately, that has been our attitude to democracy in Nigeria. I listened to President Bola Tinubu’s Democracy Day speech this morning. He delivered a very powerful message. I like this particular line: “The real test (of our democracy) is whether we shall lower our guards as the shadow of despotism and its evident physical danger fade.” That is a very important point although it must also be noted that lowering the guards can manifest in so many ways.

Our first democratic experiment lasted just six years. The second attempt was even shorter: Four years and three months. Meanwhile, the third attempt was still born. It is remarkable that the current democratic dispensation in our country has lasted a quarter of a century. But we should not wait for the rope to break. I agree with the president that despite all the challenges of recent years, we have kept the military at bay and our democracy offers windows to freedom of expression and other civil liberties. But in the interest of our country, we must find ways to balance political patronage with genuine representation.

The only enduring legacy in any democracy is meeting the needs and aspirations of the people, not just that of a privileged few. It is understandable that those who ‘work’ must ‘eat’, but the long-term benefits of building strong institutions far outweighs short-term individual interests. When institutions function effectively, they facilitate investment, innovation, and productivity that benefit all. Conversely, weak or corrupt institutions hinder economic progress. To secure our democracy, critical stakeholders must begin to think beyond themselves by placing the people and their welfare as top priority.

The Essential Ferdinand Agu

Last Saturday, my wife and I went to condole the family of Mr Ferdinand Agu who had died 24 hours earlier. Seated beside his distraught widow, I stared blankly at family portraits on the walI, lost in my own little world.  Until my wife’s elbow roused me to consciousness. “What are you looking at?” For the sake of other visitors in the room who witnessed the drama, I had to explain what appeared a moment of insanity. It was reassuring that despite her anguish, Mrs Vivian Agu understood what fired my interest in the portraits.

A few weeks earlier, I had been in the same house while her late husband rearranged those same photographs on the wall. Agu and his wife have four adult children (all male) who reside abroad and are successful in their own right. But it turned out that the frame of one of the photographs was smaller than that of others. In placing the photographs, the architect in Agu sought to balance the aesthetics of the space with family positioning. Typically, he sought my view. Such was the attention to detail reflected in the life of one of the most profound thinkers I ever encountered.

When the news of Agu’s passing broke last Friday morning, I embarrassed not a few young ladies at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre who saw me break down in tears. But that is because they had no idea of my relationship with the late Agu and what he meant to my wife and I: A reliable brother and friend. In the case of my wife, a mentor too. Ever since I introduced her to Agu in 2004, he took on the role of professional counsellor. When the Not Forgotten Initiative (NFI) School started six years ago, Agu shared with my wife his own story to illustrate the importance of the idea, having attended the Starehe Boys Centre and School, Nairobi, Kenya on a scholarship from the Nigerian government. The famous school, which started in 1959 to assist children displaced during the ‘Mau Mau Uprising’ in colonial Kenya, offers education to “children from diverse backgrounds, many of whom are poor.” 

A profound mind, Agu and I enjoyed numerous conversations about Nigeria spanning more than two decades. On several occasions in recent years, he would call and come over to my office just to chat. But our last conversation occurred two weeks ago, and it was virtual. Precisely on Thursday, 30 May. It began with a response to my column of that day, ‘Fixing Nigeria with an Anthem’. At 7.46am, the late Agu sent me a message which I now consider a fitting epitaph to a genuine patriot and an extraordinary man. After the usual greetings, he wrote this as a response to my take on the re-introduction of the old national anthem:

“Permit me to share with you my views as expressed in a family forum. As children, my generation sang this old anthem with much fondness and plenty of gusto. Then, in 1978, the (General Olusegun) Obasanjo-led army regime discarded it for the current anthem, which wordings were more reflective of their triumphalist sense of mission after the preceding and terribly sanguinary decade of 1966 -76. The beat and musical arrangement of the new anthem lacked the sombre solemnity of the old. Some described the sound of the new as ‘disco’ which was then becoming the trend. But the regime brushed all that aside. After all, the musical score was closer to the martial background of the decision-makers of the day – the Supreme Military Council. For them, solemnity could wait for other things, times, and climes.

“Indeed, about a year earlier, the same government introduced the Pledge. It was to be recited every morning in schools, etc. and to proceed or conclude every official event. That, too, was supposed to symbolise national consciousness and patriotic commitment. Critics warned of a predilection for pseudo-nationalism and signs of neo-fascism. But the regime was breezy. They were the avatars, the incarnations of new ideas, manifestation of fresh idealism, and heroes of the new Nigeria. They knew what was best.

“I often ponder this period. I often reflect on our two anthems – the new and the old. I find both the times and anthems to be equally aspirational and inspirational. In a good society, either should conjure deep feelings of national pride and pathos and set us on the course of things right and noble. Alas, what I find worrisome, and why I make this intervention, is that the younger generation – without the benefits of history – must juxtapose the lofty visions and claims of either anthem, side by side with the realities of today’s Nigeria. Then, the words lose weight. They almost pale into insignificance. With every passing day, the anthems seem superficial, naive, and almost immature; farcical and jejune.

“Yet, the challenge of authentic national leadership – for this generation and all time – is to give substance and meaning to whichever of these two anthems we sing. I trust that from this group, in the years ahead, such leaders abound and will emerge.”

May God comfort the family the late Ferdinand Agu left behind.

• You can follow me on my X (formerly Twitter) handle, @Olusegunverdict and on 

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